Analysis

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Last Updated on July 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 377

Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” written when he was only eighteen, looks back to the nineteenth century to echo the celebratory exuberance of Walt Whitman. The poem’s voice is reminiscent of the all-encompassing first-person “I” of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” in that it refers to both personal and collective experience. The speaker’s “I” spans time and space:

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I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

The poem alludes to both the nightmare of slavery and the celebratory aspects of the Black experience, containing only passing references to both forced migration and euphoria:

I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans . . .

These lines contain mostly positive, comforting images, even if what is behind them is not. The speaker never directly describes the experience of being pulled from “sleep” in a restful hut to face the horror of diaspora and enslavement on another continent—this event is only alluded to. Likewise, the Israelite experience of slavery and deliverance in Egypt, often a model for Black hopes of freedom, hovers behind the seemingly benign and pleasant images of the Nile and the pyramids. Finally, the imagery of “singing,” “the Mississippi,” “Abe Lincoln,” and “New Orleans,” while never directly mentioning the misery of slavery, does reference slavery indirectly in alluding to New Orleans slave markets, slaves singing mournfully en route to cotton or sugar plantations, and Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation of slaves. Because these allusions operate below the surface, the speaker of this poem does not condemn racism or injustice outright but focuses on celebrating Black history and culture instead.

By the mid-1920s, Hughes’s poetry had turned more explicitly to condemning injustice. In “Let America Be America Again,” another poem with a Whitman-like title and scope, Hughes openly points toward the problems of not only the Black experience but also that of all oppressed Americans:

I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land . . .

The Poem

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Last Updated on July 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 470

“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is Langston Hughes’s most anthologized poem. Hughes wrote this brief poem in fifteen minutes in July, 1920, while crossing the Mississippi on a train ride to visit his father in Mexico. It is one of Hughes’s earliest poems, and its subject established the emphasis of much of his subsequent poetry. Hughes’s poems may be divided into several categories: protest poems, social commentary, Harlem poems, folk poems, poems on African and negritude themes, and miscellaneous poetry on various other nonracial subjects and themes. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” centers on African and negritude themes. Hughes’s writing always shows an identification with Africa, and his later poetry on African subjects and African themes demonstrates his growing sophistication and knowledge of the history and problems of Africa. Along with its emphasis on African themes, this poem so poignantly and dramatically expresses what it means to be a Black American that it helps to assure Hughes’s continuing fame.

Through the images of the river, Hughes traces the history of the African American from Africa to America. The muddy Mississippi makes Hughes consider the roles that rivers have played in human history. The first three lines introduce the subject of the poem. The primary image of water symbolically represents the history of humanity, acknowledging the fact that rivers are more ancient in the history of the earth:

I’ve known rivers:I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of   human blood in human veins.

The next line connects the poet with the river and acknowledges the influence of waterways on the history of the African American: “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” This line is repeated at the end of the poem, reestablishing the connection between the human essence and the river as well as the river’s role in African American life.

The middle section reveals the connections between the history of the African American and four important rivers of the world: the Euphrates, the Congo, the Nile, and the Mississippi. The three African rivers are a part of the ancient history of Black people when they were free, living in majestic kingdoms and forming the great civilizations of Africa. The poem more specifically relates to the African American, who is the victim of slavery and discrimination in the New World, where rivers were used to transport Black slaves.

The last section of the poem, “I’ve known rivers:/ Ancient, dusky, rivers// My soul has grown deep like the rivers,” re-emphasizes the beginning section by restating the influence of rivers on the soul and life of Black people from antiquity to the twentieth century. The final line of the poem repeats the statement that connects the human soul to the rivers of the world.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on July 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 349

“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is a lyric poem. Lyric poetry is rooted in song and establishes the ritual of the human condition, in this case the condition of Black people. In this poem, Hughes is both teller (poet) and participant (African American) in the drama being described. Through the intense images of this poem, the reader is able to participate in the emotion and poignancy of the history of Black people. Since Hughes discusses this history beyond that in America, he transcends localism and projects upon his reader a world experience.

The diction of the poem is simple and unaffected by rhetorical excess. It is eloquent in its simplicity, allowing readers of all ages and levels of sophistication to enjoy a first reading; however, as one reads this poem, the deeper meaning reveals itself.

The primary image of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is water; its function as the river of time is to trace the heritage and past of the African American. The flowing, lyrical lines, like water, are charged with meaning, describing what the river has meant to Black people in America. Hughes’s poetic ability and technical virtuosity are nowhere as evident as in this short poem, which formed the basis for his early acceptance as a brilliant poet. Hughes uses the repeated line “My soul has grown deep like the rivers” to emphasize the way rivers symbolize not only the physical history of the African American but the spiritual history (“my soul”) as well. The river is also a symbol of the strength of Black people as survivors who move through history. Finally, the rivers reflect the direct path of Blacks to America.

The entire poem is based on an extended metaphor comparing the heritage of the African American to the great rivers of the world. The poet reveals the relationship between the river and the lives of Black people, starting with a river known to be important during the earliest great civilizations and ending with a river on which slaves were transported, to be bought and sold in the slave markets of America.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 162

Berry, Faith. Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem. New York: Wings Books, 1995.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Langston Hughes. New York: Chelsea House, 1989.

Chinitz, David. “Rejuvenation Through Joy: Langston Hughes, Primitivism, and Jazz.” American Literary History 9 (Spring, 1997): 60-78.

Cooper, Floyd. Coming Home: From the Life of Langston Hughes. New York: Philomel Books, 1994.

Harper, Donna Sullivan. Not So Simple: The “Simple” Stories by Langston Hughes. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995.

Haskins, James. Always Movin’ On: The Life of Langston Hughes. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1993.

Hokanson, Robert O’Brien. “Jazzing It Up: The Be-bop Modernism of Langston Hughes.” Mosaic 31 (December, 1998): 61-82.

Leach, Laurie F. Langston Hughes: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004.

Mullen, Edward J., ed. Critical Essays on Langston Hughes. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986.

Ostrum, Hans A. A Langston Hughes Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Tracy, Steven C., ed. A Historical Guide to Langston Hughes. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

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